Authors: Cindy Gerard
Tags: #Romance, #General, #Contemporary, #Fiction
plea if I ever heard one, Counselor,” he said, playing for another smile. He wasn’t surprised when she didn’t deliver. Disappointed, maybe, but not surprised.
She glanced at her austere, black-banded watch, then back at him. “I’m expecting a client in fifteen minutes, and I still have to prepare for the appointment. If there’s something you want to discuss with me, I suggest you get to it.”
He couldn’t help it. He grinned again. At her businesslike brusqueness, at the nearly Victorian starchiness of her pristine white blouse and sedate navy business suit. Already this lady was an enigma to him. He found himself itching to crack that cold, crisp demeanor she had wrapped around herself like prison bars. He was way past merely wondering if the passion she’d nearly exploded with during her speech last week was all consumed by cause and purpose. Now he wanted to know, needed to know, if any of that passion was left over for more pleasurable pursuits. Man-woman pursuits.
When he wanted so much more, he’d be damned if he’d settle for an icy reception. In spite of the fact that she hadn’t offered an invitation, he eased himself into the chair opposite her antique oak desk.
“You were really something at the conference last week,” he said sincerely. “Fire and ice . . . that’s what I thought of when I watched you. Fired up with determination, iced over with a single-minded purpose.”
“You were at the conference on child abuse? That’s how you know me?”
He shrugged. “You never know where you’ll find a story.” He paused, watching with interest as something that looked suspiciously like relief flashed across her dark eyes. “It’s true that the topic isn’t a pretty one, but I got the picture that the National Committee for the Prevention of Child Abuse doesn’t care about pretty. They care about impact and results. Your keynote address got just that. I don’t think you left a dry eye in the house.”
She studied him for a long moment before replying. “I was asked to deliver a message that needed to be heard.”
He smiled. “Well, take it from me, January. You delivered. Man, did you deliver.”
He leaned back in the chair, remembering how she’d looked that day. She’d been a tall, slim bundle of ready-to-detonate dynamite. Her eyes had flashed with emotion, and her shoulder-length walnut-brown hair had swung in counterpoint to her animated gestures. She’d spoken with heartfelt outrage, stirring and moving even the most jaded among the audience. He hadn’t been prepared for the impact she’d had on him . . . professionally or physically.
Watching her now, he decided she was somewhat more relaxed than when he’d first walked into her office. Still, she shot another impatient glance at her watch.
“I’m glad you found my speech enlightening,” she said, “but I fail to see why it brought you here. If I remember correctly, what you write is more in the line of exposés or upbeat human interest articles. My cause is hardly your style.”
She was dismissing him, he realized, pure and simple.
“Look, I’m sorry,” he said, trying again to draw a bead on what it was about him that turned her off. “I don’t usually make business appointments on the spur of the moment or looking like this, but I wasn’t working today, and I just happened to cruise down this street—”
He nodded toward the window behind her, where a monster bike took up the bulk of a parking space next to the curb. “She’s mine. Speaking of style, I never thought that a bike was my style either until I did a piece on a biker gang last year. But that’s one of the great things about life, isn’t it? It’s full of surprises. Before I knew it, I was hooked on the wind-in-my-hair, bugs-in-my-teeth fantasy, you know?” She stared stonily at him. Again, his attempt at humor fell flat. “No. I guess you don’t know. Anyway, I was riding by and recognized the address as yours—”
“Why would you know my address?”
There it was again, he thought, that unease he’d initially sensed, only now he could put a name to what he was seeing in her eyes. Panic. Definitely panic. He wanted to decipher the cause, but a puzzling need to reassure her outdistanced his curiosity.
“You’re in the phone book,” he said. “I’ve been meaning to call and set up an appointment, but, like I said, when I realized where I was today . . .” He paused as he saw his clumsy attempt to put her at ease was futile. “This is not going well at all, is it? Could we start over?” When her eyes indicated an unqualified “no,” he frowned, then snapped his fingers. “It’s the way I look, right?”
Something had warned him she would not be impressed by biker boots and jeans, no matter how “Colin Farrellish” his brother, Rob, told him he looked in them. He’d decided to chance meeting her anyway, because another little something had told him January Stewart wasn’t the kind of woman who would be particularly impressed by a well-knotted tie and imported leather loafers either.
Nothing had told him she wouldn’t be impressed at all.
At thirty-nine, he was a little old to suffer through a case of bruised adolescent pride, but the longer he thought about it, the more he realized that was what this was stacking up to be.
Even as he studied her, wondering what his next approach should be, cool detachment crowded out all other emotions on her face when she met his assessing gaze.
“I’m very busy, Mr. Hayward. Please state your business.”
He ran a hand through his hair in frustration. This was beginning to feel like a dead end. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d had to beg to be allowed to feature someone in an article. He sure as hell didn’t need the aggravation. But he kept thinking back to the way she’d been last week, and he kept wanting to feel the heat from this lady’s fire.
“Okay,” he said, deciding to play it her way. “You want short and simple, you got it. I liked what you said and the way you said it. So I took it upon myself to look you up. And to look up your bio.”
Though she blinked slowly and did not alter her expression, he sensed her panic kick into overdrive. Baffled, he nonetheless pressed on, making a mental note to reread his file on her more carefully. Maybe he’d missed something, something the lady didn’t want him to know. Something not so sweet in her pure-as-honey profile, which should have ended with a nomination for sainthood.
He’d never been afraid to bait when he smelled a story. He didn’t hesitate now. “Frankly, you sounded too good to be true. So good, in fact, that the thought crossed my mind that your list of credits may have been hand-fed to the media to foster a certain image.”
He watched with interest as her slender fingers tightened to a white-knuckled grip around each other.
“You have all the earmarks of an up-and-coming attorney,” he continued relentlessly. “Of someone maybe trying to make a name for herself as a champion of the children. Bleeding-heart liberals are in vogue this year, I understand. The new legislature moving into office at the beginning of the year could be highly impressed by you. An appointment to the attorney general’s office would be no small coup, would it, January?”
“Your conclusions are interesting,” she said in an evenly modulated tone that did not equate with the anger he knew she must be feeling. “But they are without validity or value. If you’ll excuse me—”
“January,” he interrupted, admiring the poise with which she controlled herself. He hadn’t meant a word of that drivel, but she’d provoked him, dammit. Feeling like a major-league rat for harassing her, he backed off. “I was wrong. Wrong in spades. You are the most real lady I believe I’ve ever encountered. An honest-to-goodness twentieth-century heroine.”
Her brown eyes relayed impatience and suspicion. “Your point, Mr. Hayward?”
Damn, but she was one uptight lady. So uptight, she didn’t recognize he was sincere.
“It’s Michael, January, and my point is that it was your unquestionable sincerity that grabbed my interest.” He tactfully refrained from mentioning that it was also a great pair of legs that had piqued his curiosity about her as a woman. In fact, he’d become more than a little preoccupied with thoughts about those legs. “I’d like to write a series of articles about you and your cause.”
After what seemed like an eternity but in reality was only a moment, she filled the expectant silence with one small, nonnegotiable word. “No.” Then she showed him to the door.
Statue still, January stared out the window and watched Michael Hayward ride away with a roar of his cycle and a cloud of city dust.
Once he was out of sight, it was business as usual again on the streets. A gust of Indian-summer wind stirred debris along the litter-strewn pavement. Nearby, a few street dwellers congregated near a cracked concrete tub full of barely blooming chrysanthemums, which Helen single-handedly kept alive with military determination and daily waterings.
Outwardly, January maintained her own status quo. On the inside, though, she felt as though she were splintering into a million jagged pieces.
She’d be kidding herself if she believed she’d seen the last of Michael Hayward. He’d be back. She knew he’d be back. What was she going to do then?
“All right.” Helen charged into the small office without preamble or permission. “Spill it, and I don’t mean tomorrow.”
On another day January might have found humor in Helen’s drill-sergeant delivery. Another time she might have been able to give back as much sass as she got and tell Helen to mind her own business. But this wasn’t just another day. This was the day her past had caught up with her. And this was the day she had a problem she simply couldn’t handle alone.
“Come in and shut the door,” she said quietly.
She turned and met the older woman’s eyes.
“Oh, dear,” Helen murmured, her scowl transforming instantly to concern. “Looks like you’d better talk to me, honey.”
Dodging Helen’s probing gaze, January studied her hands, which she’d again clasped tightly together on top of her desk. It took all of her will to keep them from shaking. “I don’t know where to start,” she said frankly.
That uncharacteristic lapse of confidence was not lost on Helen. “Try, ‘Once upon a time,’ ” she suggested kindly. “It’s usually quite effective.”
January watched Helen settle into the chair Michael Hayward had just vacated. She drew in a ragged breath. “I talked with my mother last night.”
“That’s nice,” Helen said, clearly baffled by the choice of topics. Then a thought struck her. “Oh, honey, is there something wrong with Monica?”
Though her relationship with her mother was distant, January felt a protective sort of love for her, and Helen knew it. “No,” January said softly. “No, she’s fine.”
“Then why are we talking about her, sweetie?” Helen’s tone was admonishing but gentle. “I could have sworn your present state of mind had something to do with the black-leather-trimmed dream machine that just strolled out of here.”
Dream? January pinched her eyes shut and fought a shudder. Michael Hayward wasn’t a dream. He was her worst nightmare come back to haunt her.
Struggling for composure, she resumed the study of her hands. They no longer felt like they were attached to her body. Nothing felt attached. She clasped them tighter, afraid that if she let go, she would fly apart and ricochet in a thousand different directions. Wouldn’t he love that? Wouldn’t he love knowing he had this effect on her?
“You’ve never asked me about my father,” she managed to say finally, determined to see this through. “Haven’t you wondered about him? Why I’ve never mentioned him?”
Helen’s mouth twisted in frustration, but her concern obviously took over. “I’ve never asked you about your father because I’ve always sensed it was something you didn’t want to talk about. But yes, I’ve wondered about him.”
“He was a drinker,” January said bluntly. “A mean one.”
Restless, uncomfortable with the memories, she pushed out of her chair. Hugging her arms tightly to her body, she faced the window. “To make a long story short, my mother and I were his favorite targets. Until the summer I turned fourteen. By then Mother didn’t have any fight left in her, and it became more fun for him to vent all of his anger on me.”
The silence that settled over the small office could have filled a courtroom. It seemed to stretch to the length of a life sentence before January forced herself to meet Helen’s gaze and hold it. “One night I decided I wasn’t going to let him . . . hurt me anymore. I fought back.”
“Good for you, honey.”
“Not so good,” she said, then blurted it out. “I killed him.”
The empathy she saw in Helen’s eyes filled her with an unqualified rush of love and gave her the courage to go on with her story.
“Needless to say, the incident caused quite a stir. It made great headlines and even greater copy. A tragic small-town murder. A study in poverty and pain. The press lapped it up. There was, of course, the sympathy issue, the fourteen-year-old child forced beyond her limits of endurance, the mother caught between grief over the loss of her husband and fear for her daughter’s future. Not to mention the intrigue attached to the fact that he’d been shot with his own handgun.”
“Oh, honey.” Helen’s voice was clogged with the emotion January struggled to keep from her own. The older woman’s eyes swam with tears as she gazed at January with so much compassion it felt like a physical embrace.
Helen had always been a toucher. It was as natural as breathing for her to open her arms and draw someone close when they were hurting. Past experience, however, had taught her that January would reject the gesture. Yet today, in the wake of Michael Hayward’s earthshaking reentry into her life, January found herself wishing Helen would let go of the restraint she so notoriously lacked and hold her. Just hold her.
To combat the wanting, she turned back to the window.
“I suspected soon after I started working for you,” Helen said, “that you’d had it rough as a kid.”
Her comment spun January around with a start.
The older woman smiled. “No, honey, you don’t wear it like a badge, but it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out why you shy away from men, from physical displays of affection. Or even why you’re so dedicated to your work with children.” She paused, then pressed on carefully. “Jan, you want to tell me what brought this all out today?”
Encouraged by Helen’s kindness, January continued. “As I said, after his . . . after my father’s death, the press had a field day.” She tried but couldn’t conceal her emotions any longer. “One reporter in particular played it for every word he could badger into print. He humiliated and sensationalized and hounded us, as if we were nothing more than players in some cheap drama. To him we existed solely for the purpose of his exploitation.”
“Oh, good Lord,” Helen muttered as comprehension dawned. She touched a trembling hand to her mouth. “It was him. The reporter. It was Hayward, wasn’t it?”
The knot in January’s breast clenched, coiling tight at the mention of his name. “He was a nobody then. No one had ever heard of Michael Hayward. But he had the fire. And the drive. We were his first big assignment. Imagine, having your life reduced to being someone’s ‘assignment.’ ” She shook herself mentally but couldn’t keep the panic from encroaching on her anger.
“Honey,” Helen began uneasily, “what does he want?”
“What he always wants,” she said coldly. “A story.”
“A story? A follow-up after all these years?”
She laughed, too loud, too fast, but her control had finally slipped, and she just couldn’t stop it. “That’s the irony. There’s always irony, didn’t you know? Always some twist to knock you off kilter, always some little spin to keep you off balance.” Meeting Helen’s concerned gaze, she regained her composure and explained. “He doesn’t realize who I am. He doesn’t know who he’s stumbled onto. He thinks I’m just some Pollyanna attorney out to set the world right. He heard me speak last week at the conference and was taken by my sincerity and sense of purpose. Or something like that.”
“Most people are,” Helen said softly, calmingly.
January looked back toward the window. “Most people don’t have the ability to destroy me. Michael Hayward does.”
“But if he doesn’t recognize you, I don’t see the problem—”
“Helen, he’s a journalist! A relentless, ruthless one. He didn’t know me today, but it won’t be long before he figures it out. He’s already digging. He told me so. A name change and an eighteen-year time lapse aren’t a lot of cover between the present and a past that could destroy everything I’ve worked for.”
“Honey, what happened with your father was terrible and tragic, but you were a child, a victim. No one would hold you responsible for that.”
She shook her head emphatically, then pinched her eyes closed. Concentrating on deep, even breaths, she called on her physical control to calm her emotionally. “It messed me up for a while, Helen. It messed everything up. Mom was in bad shape for a long time. She couldn’t give me what I needed then. I—I didn’t know what I needed. I just knew what I wanted. Attention. And I knew how to get it.” Hugging herself again in an unconscious gesture of self-protection, she paced behind her desk. “I got mixed up with a bad crowd. I . . . I did things, many things I regret now but couldn’t stop myself from doing then.”
“You were a child.”
She met the kindness in Helen’s eyes with cynicism. “I have a record, Helen. I don’t have to tell you what would happen if that fact were uncovered. Politicians, though not always lily-white, want their public servants to be. They wouldn’t like it if they found out about me. Everything that’s important, my work for the children, the advocate service, would simply be no more if my federal block grant money was pulled. And they’d pull it in a minute rather than face a scandal.”
“Why are you so sure Michael Hayward would expose you if he did find out who you are?”
January’s voice, like her eyes, grew hard. “Because I lived through what he did to us. I know how he operates. If he uncovers my identity, he’ll stop at nothing to bring the entire ugly story to life again. Even if he stopped with the story of the murder, too much publicity could jeopardize the federal funding. Without it, I couldn’t do the legal-aid work. I can’t risk it. And neither can my mother. Exposure would kill her. It took her a long time to get her life back together. She and Howard are happy now. He’s a state representative. Can you imagine what association with me, the old me, would do to his career?”
Helen considered her carefully. “Admittedly, you have a potential problem here, sweetie, but remember, you are not the same confused, troubled little girl you were eighteen years ago. Michael Hayward has those same eighteen years on him too. He could have changed. He may not be the user you remember. He didn’t impress me as being vindictive or cruel, and that’s what he’d have to be if he uncovered your story and brought it to light.”
“Don’t kid yourself, Helen. Behind that pretty face is a self-serving jackal. Now you listen to me. If he calls or comes by again, I don’t want to see or talk to him.”
Helen sighed deeply. “I don’t think he’s going to go away that easily.”
As much for herself as for Helen, January remained adamant. “He’ll go. If he’s told no often enough, he’ll move on to greener pastures.”
“Call me crazy, but something he said when he left tells me that a little word like ‘no’ isn’t going to put a dent in that man’s determination to see you again.”
January braced herself. “What did he say?”
Helen smiled tentatively. “You sure you want to know?”
“All right. He walked out of your office, leaned back against the door, shook his head, and said—sounding a little awed, I might add—‘She’s one tough lady.’ Then he laughed and winked, and in the deepest, most confident voice I’ve ever heard, added, ‘But I’m tougher.’ Then he said, ‘I’ll see you again real soon,’ and he left.”
January’s heart lurched, but she held her ground. “If he calls, I’m out. If he comes by, I’m busy. It’s just that simple. He’ll get tired of the runaround and go away.”
“If you say so,” Helen said, sounding doubtful. “I wonder if you might be making a mistake, Jan. If he’s as tenacious as his reputation indicates, he won’t quit until he gets his story. You might be better off cooperating with him. If you give him what he wants, he won’t be forced to do his own research. You could be slitting your own throat by being so resistant.”
Although January had considered that possibility, she’d dismissed it as unsound logic. “I don’t think so. The more he knows, the more he’ll want to know. I can’t risk the contact with him.”
“And what if his interest is more personal than professional?”
Something in Helen’s tone set January’s senses humming. With a look, she brushed the notion off as ridiculous.
“You don’t think you’d be his type?” Helen asked. “Don’t make book on it, sweetie. There was a certain awareness in his voice when he left here, a certain interest. You’re a challenge. And a challenge is something a man like that finds hard to resist.” She paused for effect, then added, “He’s very attractive.”
January looked at Helen sharply. “He almost destroyed my life once. He could easily do it again. Please keep that in mind if he sashays back in here oozing charm and flashing that bad-boy grin.”
“Oh, I’ll keep it in mind, all right. I just hope you know what you’re doing.”
January watched Helen leave, trying to convince herself that she knew exactly what she was doing, that she was in control of this situation. Years ago she’d made a conscious decision to take charge of her own life, and she’d done it. That decision had eventually propelled her past the ordeal of her father’s abuse and his death, and had steered her toward a career in law. Her control had always seen her through her most difficult cases.
In more ways than one, Michael Hayward represented a threat to that control. He could destroy her career. She shuddered. He could destroy her.